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Biden administration draws Palestinians close, Israel closer

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World News

(JTA) Statements and appearances by United States (US) officials suggest the Biden administration’s emerging Middle East strategy, namely reassuring Israel while resuming ties with the Palestinians ruptured by President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

On Tuesday, 26 January, the acting ambassador to the United Nations (UN) outlined plans to reverse the Trump administration’s policies concerning the Palestinians.

“The Biden administration will restore credible US engagement with Palestinians as well as Israelis,” Richard Mills said at a meeting of the UN Security Council, the first such appearance since Biden’s 20 January inauguration.

Mills, a career diplomat, is acting as UN envoy until the Senate confirms Biden’s nominee.

“This will involve renewing US relations with the Palestinian leadership and Palestinian people, relations which have atrophied over the past four years,” Mills said. “President Biden has been clear in his intent to restore US assistance programmes that support economic development and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people, and to take steps to reopen diplomatic missions that were closed by the last US administration.”

Reassurance came on Wednesday, when Biden’s nominee for UN ambassador told senators that she would maintain some of the pro-Israel policies advanced by Trump.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield said at her confirmation hearing that America would robustly push back against anti-Israel bias at the UN.

“I look forward to standing with Israel, standing against the unfair targeting of Israel, the relentless resolutions that are proposed against Israel unfairly,” she said.

Her remarks recalled one of the final acts of the Obama administration, when it allowed a Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policies. The Senate roundly condemned President Barack Obama’s failure to veto the resolution. Trump’s UN ambassadors went on to use US influence to nix pro-Palestinian moves at the body.

Biden has indicated that he wants to repair ties between Israel and Democrats strained by tensions between the administrations of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama. Notably, some of the most pointed pro-Israel questions at Thomas-Greenfield’s hearing came from Democrats who are close to Biden like Chris Coons of Delaware, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Ben Cardin of Maryland.

There remain more differences between the Biden and Netanyahu administrations than there were under Trump, but Biden is striving to tamp down Israeli anxieties about his revival of some Obama-era policies when he served as vice-president. For instance, Biden wants to return to the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu reviles, but says he will do so in consultation with Israel. Obama cut out Israel until the last phase of the negotiations.

Biden campaigned on restoring ties with the Palestinians, but it won’t be easy to reverse Trump’s policies, which included shutting down diplomatic relations and severing assistance to the Palestinian Authority. Biden must deal with a law passed by Congress that denies funding for the Palestinians as long as the Palestinian Authority pays families of Palestinians who killed Israeli and American civilians. Another law makes it hard for a president to allow the Palestinians to reopen an office in Washington unless the Palestinian Authority agrees not to seek charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court.

Trump also shut down a dedicated consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem. Reopening that office could face resistance from the Israeli government and the municipality.

At the same time, Biden officials are seeking to reassure Israel that they will sustain some of the tone and substance of changes carried out under Trump.

In one of his first statements Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, described his first conversation with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben Shabbat. They “discussed opportunities to enhance the partnership over the coming months, including by building on the success of Israel’s normalisation arrangements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco,” Sullivan said.

Thomas-Greenfield said she would build on the normalisation agreements – called the Abraham Accords – to encourage those countries to change their approach at the UN and take an active role in countering anti-Israel actions there.

“If they’re going to recognise Israel in the Abraham Accords, they need to recognise Israel at the UN,” she said.

Thomas-Greenfield also denounced the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel.

“The actions and the approach that BDS has taken toward Israel is unacceptable,” she said. “It verges on antisemitism, and it’s important that it not be allowed to have a voice at the UN.”

The Obama administration also opposed BDS, but unlike the Trump administration, didn’t make it a front-and-centre issue, nor did it compare the movement to antisemitism.

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Lifestyle

COVID-19 – a Kilimanjaro for KDVP alumnus honoured in Canada

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South African-born doctor Graham Sher was surprised, speechless, and deeply moved to be appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest civilian honours, on 29 December last year.

This King David Victory Park (KDVP) matriculant, who has been chief executive of Canadian Blood Services (CBS) since 2001 and an executive from its founding in 1998, was honoured for his contribution to public health and for being instrumental in the development of Canada’s largest blood system operator.

During Sher’s time leading CBS, a national organisation with 4 000 employees, he has navigated the challenges posed by the West Nile virus and severe acute respiratory syndrome. Having also summited Mount Kilimanjaro in 2013 to raise funds for his organisation’s national public cord blood bank, his latest obstacle is the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although I’ve managed many crises in the past, nothing has been as big, complex, sustained, and challenging as COVID-19,” Sher told the SA Jewish Report.

“In the many challenges I have had to lead the organisation through over time, I have had to be agile and responsive to understand what the nature of the emerging challenges are. I have had to protect the blood supply. I have made sure that safety is the single most important factor in every decision we make. I literally have been very close to the notion that a safe and secure blood supply is non-negotiable.”

When Sher emigrated to Canada after matriculating from KDVP in 1980 and completing his medical and doctoral degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand, he could never have dreamed of being tasked with conquering such hurdles.

“I had an outstanding and phenomenal education at Victory Park,” says Sher, who was at the school from Grade one to matric. “I remember very well some of my outstanding teachers. A lot of people were highly influential in my life – Joseph Sherman, Jeffrey Wolf, and a number of maths and science teachers.”

His time at KDVP was important for him in many ways. “I came out of there certainly prizing the values of education and striving to do one’s best. I grew up in a household that was probably substantially below the economic norm within King David, so I was very grateful for the financial support from the community, the board, and others to help me get through my time there.”

It taught him, he says, that there are always people in the world less fortunate than oneself. “It has certainly influenced who I am and the type of work I do. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to spend my career working in the public rather than the private sector.”

After becoming the first person in his extended family to obtain a university degree of any kind, he initially undertook a post-doctoral research programme at the University of Toronto. While there, he was accepted to pursue speciality training in haematology, the study of blood and blood disorders.

“One of the reasons I chose to come to Canada as opposed to the United States is that I’m a big believer in publicly-insured and publicly-administered healthcare systems,” says Sher. “Those systems, which we have in Canada, are better health systems than those in which access to healthcare is dependent on one’s economic ability.”

In the spring of 1998, when Sher was comfortably settled in Toronto with a flourishing academic medical career at the University of Toronto and the Toronto Hospital, he was approached to become the vice-president of medical affairs of a new organisation that would be replacing the Canadian Red Cross Society.

Before he knew it, he had his first executive position with the organisation that became CBS. Less than three years later, at just 38, he became its second chief executive.

“My role as CEO is to lead the organisation, set strategy, ensure operational success, and make sure we can deliver against our mission and mandate. What that entails is delivering a large number of products and services to the healthcare system to support every hospital in Canada.”

Sher says CBS is unique because it’s a national organisation, meaning that it has a responsibility for delivering products and services to the entire healthcare system across the country.

“Although our name stresses the word ‘blood’, we’re involved in many other business lines,” he says “We’re responsible for collecting blood from blood donors in Canada, manufacturing it, and testing it, making sure it’s safe, and sending it to all the hospitals. But we’re also responsible for the collection and manufacture of many human-plasma derived pharmaceuticals. We run a diagnostic laboratory division. We’re also responsible for all of the work involved in stem cell bone marrow transplantation and organ transplantation for the country.”

Some of the organisation’s achievements during Sher’s time at the helm are developing new products and services, commencing work with the organ and tissue donation and transplantation community, and opening a national public cord blood bank to collect and provide lifesaving cord blood stem cells for transplant.

Sher hired Tusker, a guide company in America, to lead him and the 24 other members of the group up Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest single free-standing mountain in the world, in 2013.

“Tusker’s owner turned out to be a Jewish ex-South African named Eddie Frank, who was a very good friend of one of my first cousins. He had a photograph of me at the Barmitzvah of my cousin, Paul Sher, 50 years earlier. To make a long story short, in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for personal and professional reasons, I landed up connecting with an excellent African Jewish guy who lives in the United States and is world famous for leading clients up Mount Kilimanjaro.”

Frank successfully led Sher, who was in the best shape of his life at the time, and the other members of the group to the summit and back. “It was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life by far,” says Sher. “It was a complete life-changing event. It taught me that I could push myself to physical and emotional extremes in a way I had never really understood before.”

The previous year, the youngest of Sher’s three sons had his Barmitzvah at the Johannesburg-based Greenside Shul. “It was the same shul where I had my Barmitzvah,” says Sher. “Interestingly, the rabbi, Mendel Rabinowitz, was a good friend of mine at school at King David.”

Going forward, Sher wants to continue preparing CBS for the post-COVID-19 world.

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Local rabbis help Rwandan rabbi with first Jewish burial

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When one of his congregants passed away last week, Rabbi Chaim Bar Sella of Rwanda turned to local rabbis in South Africa to help him arrange the first Orthodox burial in Kigali.

The late George Frank, 78, made history last week when he became the first Jewish man officially buried in Kigali’s first Jewish cemetery. His wish was to be buried near his late wife in the Rwandan capital where the couple had lived for many years.

His rabbi, Bar Sella, with whom he had forged a meaningful bond in his later years, made sure his wish came true.

“We met soon after my arrival in Rwanda with my wife and son to set up the Chabad Centre in September 2019,” said Bar Sella. “George came to visit Chabad House, and I invited him for Rosh Hashanah. On erev Yom Kippur that year, he laid tefillin for the first time in his life just minutes before the Kol Nidre service. It was very special for everyone there to witness,” he said.

Recalling that moment, he said, “I told George to put on tefillin, and he said to me, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘Just do it, and we will talk afterwards, there isn’t time’. That Yom Kippur was significant and touching, it was like his Barmitzvah, like the birthday of his neshoma [soul].”

Since then, Frank and the rabbi became close. “I would visit him on Fridays with challah for Shabbos, and lay tefillin with him,” said Bar Sella.

On Frank’s passing, Bar Sella turned to Chabad of Central Africa, led by Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo for guidance.

“Travel between various African countries is restricted, so Rabbi Bentolila advised me to get in touch with the Chevrah Kadisha in South Africa as the country was still allowing travel to Rwanda, and it would help,” said Bar Sella.

This led him to Rabbi Jonathan Fox of the Chevrah Kadisha in Johannesburg, who put him in touch with the travelling rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, rabbi to the newly established Small Jewish Communities Association, who it was hoped would fly there and assist.

“Rabbi Fox called me about this rabbi needing help arranging a Jewish burial in Kigali. The initial idea was for me to fly out there and assist him, but COVID-19 put an end to that, so I landed up helping him online with all the arrangements,” Silberhaft said.

As far as he is aware, there has never been a Jewish cemetery in Rwanda, and the majority of Jews living there are Israelis whose burials take place back home in Israel following their deaths.

“We did all the planning online,” said Silberhaft, who explained that Bar Sella first needed to secure land from local authorities.

Bar Sella met the manager of the Rusororo Cemetery to explain what was needed. “He was very understanding and respectful, and allocated a separate and large area of land at the cemetery,” he said.

Silberhaft explained how to consecrate the land for Jewish burial.

Bar Sella gathered a minyan of men, and the land was consecrated in a special ceremony according to Silberhaft’s advice.

“I explained the ritual of tahara [washing and purifying the body] and all the specific coffin requirements. His daughter brought with her a special shroud from the London Chevrah Kadisha which was used. I was very encouraged by the rabbi’s positive energy and for reaching out. It was a memorable learning experience for him,” said Silberhaft.

The deceased, who was born in France in 1943, spent many years in various African countries for work. His four children live in the United Kingdom, and three of them were present when he was finally laid to rest last Wednesday in the presence of a minyan and several congregants and locals.

“It was my first time doing something like this, and it was a very moving ceremony. I’m grateful for Rabbi Silberhaft’s help, and I’m pleased that my friend George was buried according to Jewish tradition,” Bar Sella said.

Rabbi Bar Sella, his wife Dina, and their son, Shneur, arrived in Rwanda in 2019, and set up the first synagogue in the country served by a permanent rabbi.

In the past, yeshiva students have made visits to Rwanda to run occasional Jewish events as part of Chabad’s Roving Rabbis programme.

Bar Sella said that the Chabad centre served Jewish humanitarian workers and visiting businesspeople, many of whom were Israeli, and tourists coming to see the famous gorillas.

“Rwanda is a great place. It’s safe, and you can walk in the streets anytime, day or night. It’s clean, with no pollution. We don’t use plastic here – it’s a green country. Our community usually gets its meat from Johannesburg and chickens from Israel. During COVID-19, it has been difficult. But I’m pleased to say now there is a special little place reserved for Jewish burials in Rwanda.”

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The great British botch-up of justice against Nazis

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Only one Nazi war criminal was ever tried and convicted in Britain. In fact, most Nazi war criminals and collaborators who hid in the United Kingdom (UK) were left alone by authorities and allowed to enjoy peace and safety for the rest of their lives.

That’s according to Phillip Rubenstein, who served as the director of the All-Party Parliamentary War Crimes Group in the UK in the 1980s.

This organisation campaigned successfully to change the law to enable the prosecution of Nazi war criminals living in the UK. Rubenstein shared his experiences in a lecture delivered to the Lockdown University run by Wendy Fisher. The lecture was screened in South Africa through the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre.

Rubenstein reminded the audience that, after the war, the experience of the Holocaust was mostly shrouded in silence for decades afterwards, and little action was taken against perpetrators.

For example, between 1945 and 1985, there were seven requests for extradition of Nazi war criminals living in the UK, and none of them were honoured – the British government using technicalities as an excuse.

In the 1970s, interest in the Shoah began to increase, and “one of the manifestations was that Western governments started to wake up to the fact that they were harbouring Nazi war criminals usually unbeknown to them”.

In October 1986, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles compiled a list of 17 individuals which it claimed were Nazi war criminals living in the UK, and sent it to then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

The government didn’t respond in the first few weeks, but the centre also contacted some members of parliament. A group of MPs from across party lines decided to form a group to “push, prod, ask questions, and find out what the British government proposed to do about the list”.

In the interim, the media got hold of the list through a separate leak, and began its own investigation, exposing the fact that there were Nazi criminals in the UK. Moreover, the Soviets also handed over another 34 names in this regard to the British government.

By now, media attention ensured there was a public outcry, but for weeks, the government still didn’t respond. “The issue had turned into a ‘hot potato’. No one wanted to deal with it, and it was being passed from pillar to post,” notes Rubenstein.

Eventually, it was given to then-Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, with whom the group immediately asked for a meeting.

“So, we sat down in front of him, and he said it was a case of good news/bad news. ‘We have looked at the list, and we have found that of the 17 individuals who are on here, six of them, we can confirm, are still alive and well and living in the UK,’ Hurd said. ‘The bad news is there is absolutely nothing that can be done because we don’t have any law which says that if you commit a crime – even murder, mass murder, or genocide – outside of this country before you were a UK subject, you can be prosecuted for it.’ That was how the meeting ended.”

The government then set up an independent inquiry, with Rubenstein quipping that the motivation seemed to be that “the inquiry takes so long to sit and pontificate and report that by the time it’s reported, everyone would have moved on”.

In the interim, Rubenstein’s group launched a research project led by historian David Cesarani to determine how Nazi criminals got to the UK in the first place.

The majority of the Nazi criminals found in the UK were Baltic nationals from Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, or from Poland or the Ukraine. Indeed, researchers discovered that they had been some of the estimated 30 000 local officials who had collaborated with the Nazis einsatzgruppen, the troops given the task of murdering mostly Jews, as well as Roma and dissidents once an army invasion was successful.

In 1944, when the tide began to turn in the war, many collaborators pretended to have been innocent civilians or part of the Polish Free Forces to be eligible as “displaced people”.

After the war, a “displaced person” would be able to get food and shelter on one condition: that they were not a Nazi war criminal or collaborator. Every army involved in bringing displaced people over was required to ensure this criterion was met. “Most of the armies applied poor perfunctory screening; probably the worst offenders were the British army which hardly screened anyone.”

The only time on record when anyone was refused by the British was when a group of seven Latvians, still in their Waffen-SS uniforms, applied.

In fact, recalled, Rubenstein, researchers came across one incident when a relief worker came upon 20 Baltic nationals in a displaced-persons camp who all had the same scar under their left armpit. “She discovered the reason why they all had that scar there was that they all had an SS tattoo there and they’d all had their tattoos removed. When she mentioned this to her superior officer, she was told to get on with it, shut up, and do her job.”

“Why were the British and others so uncaring about this issue?” mused Rubenstein.

There was some element of influence from the Cold War whereby anyone who was anti-Bolshevist was seen as welcome, but Britain’s attitude stemmed mostly from a much more practical place.

“As a result of the depletion of men during the war, there was a critical labour shortage.” The government was therefore carefully selecting displaced people based on who best could fill in this gap.

Jumping ahead to February 1989, the government’s war crimes inquiry then finally released its report. In its conclusions, it declared that following investigations, “to take no action would be to taint the United Kingdom with the slur of being a haven for Nazi war criminals”.

The report called for the prosecution of a number of the cases of alleged Nazi war criminals living in the UK, and for criminal law to be changed in order to do so.

However, the parliamentary process met some open antisemitism. It was only through the intervention of Thatcher that the Bill allowing such prosecution was eventually passed in 1991.

After this, a metropolitan police force specialist unit was set up. Over the next eight years, it investigated almost 400 suspects. In all that time, there was only one trial: that of Belorussian born, retired British Rail ticket collector Anthony Sawoniuk, who in 1999, was found guilty of the mass murder of Jews. Three months after his trial, the police unit closed down.

Rubenstein reflected on a comment that Labour MP Llin Golding made after being asked on a previous occasion if getting the Bill passed wasn’t a waste of time.

He quoted her response: “This Bill may not lead to a single prosecution of a single Nazi war criminal living here. But at least it might give them bitter fear that one day soon, someone will knock on their door and make them answer for the suffering they inflicted.”

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